- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

A.C. Newman
Get Guilty
Matador Records

A.C. Newman’s prog rock hooks and lilting, energetic voice are the heart and soul of the New Pornographers.

While the group features compositions from Dan Bejar, and while concerts lacking rock chanteuse Neko Case disappoint, it’s obviously Mr. Newman’s outfit. So it’s not surprising that his second solo album, after “The Slow Wonder” from 2004, picks up where the New Pornographers’ last studio album left off.

This is a good thing.

“Challengers,” released in 2007, was an album of haunting power and understated emotional resonance. Here, the mood is similar - downbeat and aspirational at the same time. It’s a hard tone to strike, but Mr. Newman is a masterful pop composer, shuttling facilely between major-key determination and minor-key wistfulness. He’s confident enough to fold shopworn pop motifs - tra-la-las and ooh-wahs - into more complicated orchestrations.

On “Get Guilty,” Mr. Newman keeps the electric guitar in the background as the rhythmic spine of most tracks. The drums here don’t just keep time; they provide a rumbling counterpoint to the vocals. Jon Wurster and Charles Burst are credited as drummers on the album, but it’s not clear who does what. The album’s signature sound - other than Mr. Newman’s voice - is a deeply pitched, resonant timpani that conveys both urgency and anticipation.

On the fantastical “Submarines of Stockholm,” acoustic guitar and drums mix in an opening riff that seems to allude to the David Bowie classic “John I’m Only Dancing.” A weird synth howl like a parody of a sonar’s depth sounding mixes in as the song builds. “The Palace at 4 AM,” an ode to “some Polynesian dive,” opens with a four-bar drum burst that repeats like a guitar riff throughout the album, while the regular bowing of a few long, sonorous cello notes sets the beat.

There isn’t a bum song on the album. Yet the tour de force is the three-minute title track, “Changeling (Get Guilty) which matches a stunning, full-throttle vocal, sustained electric guitar notes and an explosion of kettle drums. “The Collected Works” is another standout, with its driving guitar theme playing off the goofy, ethereal harmonizing of a Moog keyboard. The track boasts the strongest guitar work of an album more notable for less rock-oriented sounds.

Lyrically, Mr. Newman (as ever) bends toward opacity, obscure literary references and parable. One notable exception is the opening track, a breakup song called “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve,” which features some of the most evocative lines of Mr. Newman’s career.

He sings: “Once there was a haunted loop of your deep fallen tears/A forehead resting on a record shelf/ Amid moving boxes stacked, I’m still waiting for the right words/ Make of that what you will.”

Drawing bright lines demarcating Mr. Newman’s music projects may be a pointless exercise, but of all the tracks, “Prophets” - with a backing vocal part that sounds as if it were written for Mr. Bejar’s weirdly gritty falsetto - sounds the most like a New Pornographers song.

More to the point, Mr. Newman himself, hopefully, doesn’t draw such sharp distinctions; all the tracks on “Get Guilty” would be welcome additions to the New Pornographers’ live repertoire.

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